Capitol Hill probes White House role in firings

Congressional subpeonas portend a showdown over executive privilege.

Sara Taylor was frustrated, and thought the time might be ripe for a little political revenge.

The date was Feb. 7, 2007. Ms. Taylor – then White House political director – had helped an administration colleague named Tim Griffin land the prestigious post of US attorney for eastern Arkansas. Trouble was, the job hadn't just been sitting open. To replace Mr. Griffin, the Bush team had fired the previous prosecutor in the position – Bud Cummins, a former chief counsel to the state's Republican governor.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Cummins didn't like getting the ax. He started complaining publicly about the way he'd been treated. But Taylor and some other White House officials saw this as disloyalty.

"I normally don't like attacking our friends, but since Bud Cummins is talking to everyone, why don't we tell the deal on him?" wrote Taylor in an e-mail to a top Justice Department official.

As a sheaf of just-released administration e-mails makes clear, White House officials were fully engaged in the response to the furor over fired US attorneys as it developed early this year.

Previously released documents and testimony by Justice Department officials show that former White House counsel Harriet Miers and other top Bush aides were aware of the effort to purge prosecutors before it began.

The House and Senate Judiciary Committees would like to know exactly how involved the White House was with the whole affair. So June 13 they issued subpoenas to try to compel both Taylor and Ms. Miers to appear at public hearings.

If the White House chooses to fight the subpoenas on grounds of executive privilege, the legal struggle might last until the end of the Bush presidency. Congressional investigators might be left poring over the existing record for further clues.

"The bread crumbs in this investigation have always led to 1600 Pennsylvania [Avenue]," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan on June 13.

Miers resigned as President Bush's chief counsel this past January. She appears to have been a key voice pushing for attorney firings from the start.

US attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president – indeed, Miers reportedly urged that all 93 be replaced at the start of Bush's second term. But Democratic lawmakers say they suspect that the dismissal of eight of the top prosecutors last year may have reflected some White House plan to improperly use the posts to gain political advantage.

Incomplete, contradictory, and shifting explanations for the dismissals offered by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and other officials have fed Democratic suspicions.

Miers appears to have communicated often with Kyle Sampson, ex-chief of staff to Mr. Gonzales, before any attorneys were actually fired.

In January 2006, Mr. Sampson sent her an e-mail that said a limited number of firings would "mitigate the shock to the system."

Seven US attorneys were dismissed in December 2006. By January 2007, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California began to complain on the Senate floor that the purge might have been political – and that Gonzales might be using newly expanded appointment powers to circumvent the Senate's traditional confirmation role.

Through an intermediary, Miers assured Senator Feinstein that her suspicions were not true, and that the new interim US attorneys would eventually come to the Senate for a confirmation vote. Having done so, she then had to turn to the Justice Department to make sure she was right. "Am I correct in what I told [the intermediary]?" Miers wrote to Sampson in a Jan. 7, 2007 e-mail released this week by the Justice Department. Mr. Sampson replied that she was.

Congressional investigators would also like to talk to Taylor, so they can understand the role of her former boss, White House Political Adviser Karl Rove.

E-mails released this week make it clear that Taylor was particularly active in regard to the Arkansas attorney position. Lengthy exchanges document her efforts to bolster the prosecutorial credentials of Griffin, trying to counter media depictions that focused on his ties to Mr. Rove.

As for the ousted prosecutor Cummins, in the same e-mail Taylor complains that Justice officials "refuse to say Bud is lazy – which is why we got rid of him in the first place."

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